Common Writing 'Mistakes' – Part 1: Speech marks

This article is the first of a three part series where we shine a light on the most common mistakes we see in submissions. It's important to be clear why we’re writing about these ‘mistakes’. We love diversity in writing and certainly don't want to make every story the same but, as the saying goes, it's important to know the rules before you break them. First up is the most frequent offender we see: incorrect speech marks.

What goes wrong?

Are they speech marks, inverted commas or quotation marks? Whatever you want to call them, these little symbols are hugely important to the reading experience. Errors in their usage can take a number of forms:

  1. Incorrect placement in sentences and paragraphs – At its least offensive, the writer doesn’t take a new line to launch into speech. At its worst, two or more speakers are contained within one paragraph and it’s a guessing game who you are ‘listening’ to next.
  2. Italics instead of speech marks – Italics are mostly used to denote a character’s inner thoughts, so using this (or any other substitute such as a hyphen, indent etc.) for dialogue only adds confusion.
  3. No speech marks at all – This is puzzling and often comes across as lazy because the writer is forcing the reader to put in extra effort. There is no guidance as to who is talking and when they are speaking.

Why is it bad?

Anything that makes the reading experience unnecessarily difficult should be approached with extreme caution. By not making your text clear and easy to understand, you are burdening the reader with unnecessary effort. You want them to get lost in the writing, not lost trying to decipher what is going on.

Is it ever okay?

A ‘mistake’ can sometimes be made for certain stylistic reasons, but it is extremely difficult to pull off and retain clarity. Many classic writers have done it in the past (like James Joyce) as well as more contemporary authors (like Cormac McCarthy), so there’s certainly not a hard and fast rule. However, make sure you have a good reason for doing it. If the reason is ‘to be different’ or because you prefer how it looks, stick to the correct way of doing dialogue.